Buying a lightweight tripod

If you’ve been following my other posts, you’ll know that I’ve been experimenting with both HDR and gigapans, having purchased a GigaPan EPIC unit. The one item of equipment that’s critical for both of these is a good solid tripod. Up until now I’d been using the aluminium SLIK one I bought for my GSCE photography course (which was obviously a long time ago). It has served me pretty well over the years, but was definitely crying out to be replaced, so I put it into retirement, and set about finding a replacement.

I’d heard a lot about Manfrotto tripods over the years, and after asking around at the office - Manfrotto seemed to be the way to go. I started on the website, but found that it look a lot of work to make sense of their product range. As I was only really looking for a lightweight tripod, I focused on the carbon fiber or CF models (because buying a moderately heavy tripod that you don’t take out with you when hiking is worse than having no tripod at all!). This led me to the 190CXPRO4and 055CXPRO4. The 190 is the smaller version with a max height of 146cm; whereas the 055 has a max height of 170cm. I’m of average height, and value low-size, low-weight, so focused selected the 190 range. The last digit on the code is either a 4 or a 3 - for 4 or 3 leg segments. More segments provide a smaller packed size, but result in the smallest segment using a thinner circumference - which might make the tripod more unstable in wind, or subject to vibrations. The smallest leg width on the 190CXPRO4 has a diameter of 11.6mm, which didn’t seem too from my perspective - as it was certainly better than my old SLIK.

I should note that I plan to use the tripod mostly for big panoramas - not telephoto shots of wildlife - so I don’t believe that the ultimate in stability is a strong requirement. Nevertheless, if I do come into a situation where I need more stability from a 4 segment leg - most of the time I could just not extend the last segment, and drop the center column.

The next question you have to answer with professional tripods such as this one, is what head to purchase. My old SLIK had a pan/tilt head, which worked for me, but was sometimes difficult to level off (an important criteria for panoramas). This drove me to look at ball heads. I narrowed my choice down to the 484RC2, which looked sufficient for my needs; then got interested by the 322RC2 grip action one. This has a large grip, along with a trigger action to allow you to both lock, and unlock the ball, and drive the position of the camera in one motion with one hand. They also provide a potential for adding a remote trigger, so that you can shoot from the grip as well. All in all a very attractive package. The only trouble is that it adds extra weight to the package a 0.7kg (vs the 484RCs at 0.32kg).

Manfrotto Suppliers

So with the 190CXPRO4 + 322RC2, I was looking at a system with a max height of 156.3cm (or 132.3cm with the center column down), and a closed length of 60.3cm, weight of 2.04kg, and a load capacity of 5kg. This seemed reasonable, but I was concerned that it wasn’t as compact, or lightweight as I could find; so I went off scanning the discussion forums for more.

My next stop in the discussion forums took me to Gitzo - who make some excellent tripods, although at a cost of around 2x that of Manfrotto. The best lightweight one I could find from the Gitzo range was the traveller or GT1541. Gitzo have managed to work out how to build a compact lightweight tripod where the legs fold back on themselves, hiding the head between the legs, reducing the overall packed size of the tripod plus head from the 60cm of the manfrotto above to a fantastic 41cm. This tripod has a min height of 134kg, and a weight of 0.97kg. For comparison the 190CXPRO4 without the head was 146cm max height (122cm with center column down), 1.3kg in weight, and 50cm packed length. Ok - so the Gitzo better, but at what price? Around UKP 420, just for the legs. Ouch. This pushed the expense budget a little too far for my pocket, so I went back to the forums.

Gitzo supplier

I found some discussions about Feisol, although dropped them fairly quickly when I discovered that the legs rotated when you did up the turn locks.I found a couple of posts about a Chinese competitor who’d knocked off the Gitzo traveler design with one of their own, had implemented non-rotating legs, and were selling for around half of the price of the Gitzo. A little research led me to one bad experience with their heads (ok - if the head fails, I can go buy a Manfrotto, Really right stuff, or other), and a lot of ‘it can’t be good - it’s a Chinese knockoff’ comments from people who’d obviously invested in the real thing. I found a couple of posts from people who’d bought one (Fedone1275 review, Steve review), and thought it was a great buy for the cash, so I investigated further.

Some of the discussions I read indicated that the current tripods and heads were the 2nd generation, and so had improved ball head locking mechanisms, or stronger CF legs. I wasn’t able to validate any of these claims, other than by looking at the sales-info on the various vendor websites.

Benro have 3 size ranges 0/1/2, and both CF and AL versions. I wanted a reasonably sturdy model for the panoramas, but as light and compact as I could find - so selected the C169 M8. It comes in at 8kg, 148cm max height (122cm with center column lowered), 1kg, and only 35.5cm when packed. Wow - even smaller than the gitzo. The ‘9 range have 5 sections (but they also have an ‘8 range with 4 sections which provides better strength, but a slightly increased packed length). The smallest leg section is 13mm, still larger than the smallest section on the Manfrotto. With head included, this brought the weight up to 1.27kg. Price - around 270 - 290 UKP.

Click on this table to expand and see the specs of the Benro tripods with heads:-

Benro Suppliers

This is the table I compiled as I was researching the different options

Manufacturer

Name

Load /kg

Min/cm

Max/cm

Weight/kg

Packed/cm

Benro

C169 M8

8

122

148

1

35.5

Benro

C269 M8

12

128

155

1.24

38

Benro

C168 M8

8

113

141

1

37.5

Benro

C068 M8

6

108

134

0.78

35.5

Gitzo

GT1541T

8

113

134

0.97

41

Manfrotto

190CXPRO4

5

122

146

1.3

50

Manfrotto

055CXPRO4

8

135

170

1.7

54.5

Manfrotto

055CXPRO3

8

140

175

1.6

65

Manfrotto

190CXPRO3

5

122

146

1.3

58

And the conclusion of this post - is that yes - I ended up ordering the Benro C169 M8 last weekend. I bought it from the ebay seller in Hong Kong - and he shipped it via DHL, so that it turned up last Thursday. I’ve tried it out on a couple of quick trips, but haven’t given it any serious punishment yet. I’m sure it doesn’t feel as good or smooth as a Gitzo would and may not last a lifetime, but it seems to have all of the functionality I need right now, and is light enough without being at all flimsy. Ask me again in 6-months time, and I’ll let you know how it’s held up to the punishment I plan to put it through…

Andy.